Technology will change so fast in the 21st century that schools must teach aspiring engineers how to become lifelong students instead of teaching them specific skills, a former Xerox scientist said Friday in a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Training someone for a career makes no sense. At best, you can train someone for a career trajectory," said John Seely Brown, the former chief scientist at Xerox and director of its Palo Alto Research Center. Brown now teaches at the University of Southern California.

The best way to achieve that goal is to change the classroom from a lecture hall dominated by a "sage on stage" to smaller social groups that allow students to creatively participate in the research themselves, he said.

A crucial step in the process is arming schools with web-based teaching tools. Attendees at the conference saw many of these new tools that have emerged from the iCampus Alliance, a collaboration between MIT and Microsoft.

While these projects are innovative, the methods are already common among internet users, Brown said. Open-source programmers who share snippets of code to improve Linux, JBoss or Apache have already discovered the power of learning through active communities. Even teenagers who create re-mixes of rap songs or movie clips have found they can learn vast amounts by sharing new projects on the web and being rewarded when their peers applaud the result.

This approach works in poor communities as well as affluent university campuses, he said.

"I don't believe in the digital divide; we may have overplayed that. Most kids I know, if they want a PlayStation 3 they're going to bust their butts to get the money for it," said Brown. "I've seen people who have dropped out of school and been called illiterate who get involved with remixing music, get appreciation from other people and get totally turned on. Getting acknowledged for creating something unleashes incredible passion in these kids."

Likewise, the same model works as readers evolve from mass media consumers to producers, posting their own creations on blog sites or YouTube, Brown said. The proliferation of special-interest groups on Yahoo has shown that the technique can work whether it occurs around classroom desks or in virtual spaces like instant messaging windows or Second Life avatars.

Some teachers have already picked up on this trend in projects like the Faulkes Telescope, an astronomical observatory located on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Far from being the exclusive domain of American scientists, the facility is used by schoolchildren in Australia, whose national government owns the facility and directs their research through a long-distance web connection.

Likewise, some MIT students seldom attend classes, instead monitoring lectures from their dorm rooms with the school's online OpenCourseWare network, then visiting campus mainly for the study groups. Similar models exist at Rice and Carnegie Mellon universities, and a social learning program at North Carolina State University has helped to greatly reduce drop-out rates of women and minorities from engineering classes.

"The time has come to shift to socially constructed education," Brown said. "The skills you learn here won't last more than three or four years. The best you can do is retain some meta-skills about how to continue your education."